Divine Madness

by Paul Pines

Divine Madness

Reviewed by Naftali Rottenstreich

Paul Pines begins Divine Madness, his latest collection of poems, with the following bit from Phaedrus: "if any man come to the gates of poetry without the madness of the Muses, persuaded that skill alone will make him a good poet, then shall he and his works of sanity with him be brought to naught by the poetry of madness... ." It's a provocative epigraph and conditions our expectations even before we've ventured into the text. For anyone familiar with his career, however, the epigraph makes clear that Divine Madness will continue the important job Pines began more than forty years ago.

In that time, Pines has been producing a diverse body of work whose central concern has been, to use Harold Brodkey's term, the "runaway soul." In modes as diverse as the crime novel (The Tin Angel), the memoir (My Brother's Madness), opera, and eight volumes of poetry, Pines pursues-with keen and nuanced observation-the psyche's flights, fissures, mania, and brilliance.

Divine Madness reads as a compendium of the iconoclastic tradition, a directory of antinomian genius. One of the remarkable things about this sixty four-page volume is its sheer historical breadth; a partial list of its "heroes" includes Vulcan, Paine, Einstein, Bernstein, Audubon, Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Bruno, Telemachus, Penelope-all of them radicals, rebels of conscience. One of the challenges in adopting such strong heretics as poetic figures is that their figurative power may be rendered banal by a more persistent, already-potent historical script. Pines' poetic strength, however, lies in the construction of compelling predicates, the terms-at once jarring, uncanny, and illuminating-that render these agents into figures that continually astonish.

The volume's opening poem has us observing "Puritans sniffing out/God's fingerprints." Later, Leonard Bernstein

				at 70
				eyes closed
						hears music
						beneath the music
				the way it plays him
				its theme of power in decline

"The way it plays him." It's a wonderful trope-one that cuts to the heart of this collection: the genius and beauty that comes with surrender to divine possession, ecstasy, madness. We see it again a bit later in a much earthier form:

                                                   heart sore Van Gogh
				chewed so much foxglove
				his world turned yellow
				painted it that way
				blood loaded with

For Pines, though, the value of these moments lies not in their biographical truth, but in the larger, celestial truth that they reveal. The drama that unfolds here is our spiritual drama, to be played out eternally in a timeless time. And so a teen

on a bicycle
hugging his radio
through the autumn streets
of a mill town

becomes, in Pines' vision, Young Telemachus reliving the ageless drama of the soul's pursuit of a missing self-the "Absent One."

For a work so invested in the limning of divine madness, Pines' language is always clear, sober, and bracing. While it rejects linearity of representation, conventions of syntax and grammar (there's not a punctuation mark in the entire work), the revelations are never obscured or turgid. More than anything, Pines' authorial identity is that of guide and teacher-one schooling us in the facts of our most profound life.